Liberty Matters

What Is ‘Modern Liberty’ For?

Today a great deal of discussion about liberalism concerns the question of whether it is anything more than a protection racket for neoliberalism, the overzealous expansion of economic markets into more spheres of human activity. It is often assumed that liberals are either insincere or naive when they claim to prefer limited government and individual rights for any reason other than to secure the personal property of those who have wealth and comforts to enjoy.
Benjamin Constant's De la religion, now translated into English for the first time in a wonderful edition by the Liberty Fund, begins with a vigorous argument that liberals can and must offer a nobler purpose for their positions than self-interest. Constant was famous for his commitment to "modern liberty" and individual rights, but he was never satisfied with the abstractness of rights. He wanted to know what the spheres of freedom that rights protected could be used for, and what would make a human life lived in such freedom worthwhile. The answer he gave, drawing from Rousseau, from early German Romanticism, and from Protestant Pietism, was that modern liberty offered space for the self-development of the individual and, therefore, for the improvement of the human species as a whole. Self-development was meant to be a moral and spiritual project with a dignity that the egoistic and utilitarian pursuit of property could not offer.
In this opposition to utilitarianism we can find the clearest vindication of Alan Kahan's claim that Constant was close to Immanuel Kant in basic philosophical orientation. Kant virtually defined morality as independence from the claims of pleasure that utilitarian philosophers regarded as normative. Constant's calls for "sacrifice" in the introduction to On Religion loosely followed Kant's famous argument that we could only be sure that our actions were moral when they followed the demands of duty against our inclinations. Constant did not link rational autonomy and morality in the way that Kant did, but he regarded our ability to act against inclinations as crucial to our capacity to improve ourselves. In his essay "On the Perfectibility of the Human Race," Constant explored the human capacity to act according to "ideas" rather than "sensations" or "inclinations":
[T]here exists in human nature a disposition, by which it is always enabled to sacrifice the present to the future, and consequently a sensation to an idea. The process is the same in the laborious workman who wearies himself with toil to support his family; in the miser who endures cold and hunger to preserve his gold; in the lover who braves fatigue and tempest to win the heart of his mistress; in the ambitious man who rejects sleep or neglects a wound in the service of his country; in the noble-minded citizen who watches, combats and suffers, for its safety. There exists in all the possibility of sacrifice; there exists in all, in a word, the dominion of ideas over sensations.[19]
The "sacrifice" that Constant credited the religious sentiment with inspiring in On Religion was the same psychological capacity described in this passage. In pleading for a sympathetic understanding of even the earliest historical form of religion, fetishism, he pointed to its ability to inspire this sort of self-sacrificing action.
Constant never fully explained precisely why he thought the ability to distance ourselves from our sensations and inclinations was so closely linked with the "religious." Sometimes I suspect that the "religious" for Constant simply was the shadowy, not rationally explicable, sense that egoism was not enough – what he called, in the most dramatic moment of his famous speech on ancient and modern liberty, "that noble disquiet which pursues and torments us, that desire to broaden our knowledge and develop our faculties."[20] If we place proper emphasis on this moment in his speech, and if we link it to his work in On Religion, we can see that he found in the need to protect the religious sentiment a justification of his preference for modern liberty.
It is true that the speech on liberty pointed to the individualism and commercial habits of modern peoples as a sign that they would not accept the priority of the public good demanded by ancient Spartans. If we ask, however, why these distinctly modern conditions were worth preserving, we do not find a simple answer. In particular, Constant offered no theory of natural rights as Locke did, nor did he suggest that the right to property was fundamental to human happiness at all times. Instead, he claimed that modern liberty was suitable for modern peoples and he assumed what he had announced elsewhere, in previous lectures as well as in essays and other writings – that modernity itself was the result of a progressive history.[21] His defense of modern liberty depended on his account of progress.
Constant seems to have conceived of On Religion as his effort to tell that progressive history of the human spirit. In the end, in spite of having devoted intense intellectual effort to the project over many years, he was only able to tell the early part of the story. The book ended before Christianity arose, even though elsewhere Constant portrayed Christianity as a crucial source of moral progress and credits it with having introduced the idea of equality and the unacceptability of ostracism and slavery. On Religion was concerned not to race towards this stage of history, but instead to explore two fundamental theoretical distinctions that govern its structure: a distinction between religious sentiment and religious form, and a distinction between priestly religions and free ones.
The distinction between sentiment and form was Constant's answer to the question of how a religious sentiment that he claimed was inherent in human nature could have a history at all. The religious sentiment, he argued, manifested itself in different ways at different moments. The sentiment, precisely because of its only diffusely understood substance, could inspire many sorts of social organization and institutional embodiment. These institutions were the religious forms. The thrust of Constant's argument was to show that any particular form was historical and therefore not essential to the religious sentiment itself. A form would arise because it suited a certain stage of human development, but after a time it would become constraining on further development and had to be cast off in favor of a new form. Those enlightenment or liberal critics who saw religion as static and stultifying were mistaking the forms for the sentiment. Constant's distinction between form and sentiment was his effort to show how religion, so often seen in France as a counterrevolutionary force, could be associated with the dynamism of progress.
The principal impediment to progress in the story told in On Religion was the power of priests. Their claim to have a monopoly on religious insight led them, Constant argued, to impose a false stability on the religious sentiment, to impede its natural development and therefore the free development of human culture more generally. He portrayed ancient Egypt as the epitome of priestly domination and contrasted it with ancient Greece. The absence of priestly authority in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey demonstrated, Constant thought, the key fact about Greek religion – its relative freedom.
Constant was a Swiss Protestant of some kind, and it is easy to notice how readily his opposition to priestly authority transfers from ancient Egypt to modern Catholicism. But he also saw broader implications to the argument against priests, since he saw liberals and socialists of his day falling into what we might call the priestly temptation – the desire to legislate one form or another of civic religion as a way of uniting society. The postrevolutionary plans to inculcate republican virtues in the French citizenry by imitating the educational methods of monasteries struck him as "Egyptian" in their sensibility. This is why his warnings against efforts to imitate ancient Spartan liberty so often emphasized the importance of religious freedom.
Limited constitutional governments of the kind that Constant spent his life defending can be understood as efforts to restrain priestly authority from wielding power over political society as a whole. Those governments do not permit themselves to mold the religious beliefs or institutions of their citizens. On Constant's view, this is good not because the religious aspects of our lives do not matter morally or politically, but because the free play of our religious sentiment allows each of us to develop our highest capacities and therefore is the fundamental force insuring that the history of humanity will be a progressive one.
We still face the dangers that Constant had in mind: the priestly temptation in politics, understood broadly, remains strong in certain ways, and liberalism always threatens to decay into utilitarian egoism. Whether Constant's remedies are compelling for us may depend on whether we can find our way back to his belief in historical progress and on whether we share his view that freedom of religion makes a crucial contribution to that progress.
[19.] Benjamin Constant, "On the Perfectibility of the Human Race," in George Ripley, ed., Specimens of Foreign Literature (Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company, 1838), 351-52.
[20.] Benjamin Constant, "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns," in Political Writings, Biancamaria Fontana, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 327.
[21.] See Bryan Garsten, "Constant on the Religious Spirit of Liberalism," in The Cambridge Companion to Constant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Garsten, "Religion and the Case Against Ancient Liberty: Benjamin Constant's Other Lectures," Political Theory 38 (2010).